A breakthrough by scientists at the University of Leicester in understanding mechanisms within the brain which cause injury could lead to better treatments in the future for conditions such as as cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis.
Drs Robert Fern and Mike Salter of the Department of Cell Physiology and Pharmocology at the University of Leicester had their findings published in the science journal Nature.
Their study is particularly important as it identifies the cause of damage to the brain and the mechanism by which this occcurs - thereby raising the possibility of drugs being developed in the future which may help to reduce injury and the disease states that follow.
Dr Fern said: "This project has taken over a year to complete and has produced some rather important findings. We believe that we may have opened a new window into how the brain becomes damaged in a number of important diseases ranging from stroke to multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injury. We will now continue to study the particular brain receptor that is involved in the hope of discovering a way to block the receptor and therefore avert brain injury for a large number of patients."
This work was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to R.F.
More about glutamate:
The brain is the organ responsible for our thoughts, memories, sensations and emotions. All these functions occur because neurons, the "little grey cells" of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, are able to pass signals between one another using a chemical called glutamate.
Glutamate is released by neuronal structures called synapses and interacts with special receptors on neighboring neurons. While most people will have heard of neurons, it is not commonly known that only about half of the brain is actually made up of these cells, with the remainder being made up of non-neuronal cells called glial cells.
Neurons rely on glial cells for protection and sustenance and form a particularly close partnership with a kind of a glial cell called an oligodendrocyte. Oligodendrocytes have processes that wrap tightly around neurons, insulating them and allowing signals to speed quickly from neuron to neuron. They produce a white substance called myelin which acts like an electrical insulator and these cells can be thought of as the "little white cells" of the brain, with areas of the brain rich in oligodendrocytes having a characteristic white appearance. Damage to oligodendrocytes is catastrophic to the brain, producing debilitating diseases such as cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis.
We have been working to identify potential causes of this injury and have found that glutamate release acting upon glutamate receptors is causing damage to the oligodendrocyte cell processes. As a result of this damage the oligodendrocytes are not able to insulate the neurons and this manifests itself in sufferers as an inability to control basic functions such as speech and movement.
The work we have completed shows that glutamate receptors are located on oligodendrocyte processes and that over activation of the receptor leads to injury. It is ironic that the receptor that is responsible for transmitting signals between neurons in healthy brain is also the cause of suffering in many cases of neurological disease. The identification of a specific receptor as being responsible is particularly important as it raises the possibility of drugs being developed in the future which may help to reduce injury and the disease states that follow.